For a long while I was finding it difficult to muster up the energy to get out of the rut I felt I was in. For me at least, there are two frames of mind which the eliminating of can contribute to overcoming this sort of paralysis, especially with new problems.
1) Switching From “I Can Do This” to “I Can Figure This Out” Mental Schemas: This is an odd one, mainly because most personal development blogs like to encourage faith in oneself through the phrasing of the former rather than the latter. However, in my experience, I’ve found that “I Can Do This” has an implication that the knowledge of how to solve the problem is already present somewhere in the recesses of the struggler’s mind. They just have to take advantage of it. But in this wide, wide world, we encounter many problems and situations which we could never have spontaneously prepared for. Whether taking on an entirely new set of duties/responsibilities in the work place, or dealing with the impact of circumstance, life is loaded with times when the solution, or even the material/knowledge-based means to it, is not located internally.
The only thing we possess in this situation is the amazing human ability to analyze relationships between objects, skills, and concepts. However, provided that a means exists in the external world to solve the problem (which, no matter how dire a situation gets, 99.9% of the time, there is), we can have faith that we HAVE the capacity to understand and figure it out.
One of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons is Bart The Murderer, where Bart is accused of getting Principal Skinner killed by the mob. But, at the last second, Skinner bursts in to tell the story of how he was actually trapped under a stack of newspapers for days, using MacGuyver-esque ingenuity (not to mention a complete disregard of scientific law) to escape. Though all of us might not be able to shrug off the laws of physics (those of you who can, shoot me an email. We have much to discuss), I think a lesson can be taken from this. The least-expected thing happens to Skinner, and yet, through keeping his mind sharp by turning his situation into a game (“I kept my mind sharp by seeing how many times I could dribble a basketball in a minute, and then trying to beat that record”), he is able to survey his surroundings and pick out elements which he can cobble together into an escape method. Nowhere in his mind existed a ready-made plan for being trapped under a mountain of newsprint, but his ability to create a game-space out of a daunting task, and keeping the faith that he could, in fact, FIGURE THIS OUT, led him to be able to create a means to escape. Had he not engaged his mind in this way, he very well might’ve ended up just a corpse buried under old copies of The New Yorker. Which brings me to my next point…
2) A Solved Problem Is Its Own Reward: A lot of the the time I find myself paralyzed when it comes to getting stuff done, especially when there is a significant knowledge-relation barrier between me and a solution. The incentive of “imagine how easy your life will be/the reduction in stress which will follow solving this problem or getting this thing done”, feel too far away to generate any amount of the kind of “right now” reward appeal which any evolutionary psychologist (or video game designer) will tell you tend to take the driver’s seat in terms of deciding which stuff gets done.
Then, following a brief spurt of creativity I had one day, I had triumphantly crossed off an item from my writing to-do list when I took a moment to reflect and realize that the reason I was happy following its completion wasn’t because of the potential career avenues it opened up by adding more written pieces to my resume, because I had eliminated an item of work, or EVEN because I love writing. I was happy because, damnit, working with a challenging problem and overcoming it feels good in and of itself.
As Jane McGonigal writes in her awesome book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better, work IS play. When tested by checking-in on a mood scale during various daily intervals, researchers found that people were actually more depressed when doing things traditionally considered “relaxing” ( watching television, eating chocolate, etc than when they were engaged in work of any kind, whether creative, cooperative, discovery-based, or even just busywork. But here’s the rub: this result persisted, but only provided that their work had the appropriate characteristics which McGonigal states are necessary to turn it into a game: A goal, a feedback system, rules, and voluntary participation. These components provide any task with the potential to generate an intrinsic sense of reward through its accomplishment, so long as it is structured appropriately.
It sounds as cliche coming out of my mouth as it does Principal Skinner’s, but when you have trouble getting yourself to start (or persist on a task), think not of the extrinsic rewards (which can actually REDUCE motivation), but the satisfaction that will come simply from the thrill of the process and the production of something tangible. If you’re having trouble finding the play in your work, try adding a couple unnecessary obstacles: a time limit, a structure, a couple extra rules or challenges… just something to make the task more interesting. Just as importantly, give yourself a quantifiable or qualitative method of receiving feedback. I personally use time-tracking via Toggl.com, and Done-Lists via idonethis.com, and found they really helped me.
Phew! Long post this week. But I hope this helps anyone having trouble digging themselves out of a rut, getting stuff done, or who are just plain ol’ bored with the way they’ve been operating lately. I know it did for me!